How to write songs

Or more specifically, how to write parodies of songs for a satirical revue. The few posts I did on ‘How To Write Sketches’ seem to be quite popular, so I thought I’d follow it up with a companion post about comedy song writing.

The only flaw in that plan is: I’m shit at writing songs.

I’ve never quite got the hang of it and my success rate is appalling. It takes me hours to write one, most of which is spent scouring rhyming dictionaries. I can write four or five sketches in the time it takes to write one song and my songs almost never get performed.

I keep going though, I don’t like the thought of not being able to do something. Sooner or later I’ll get the hang of it.


So advice from me on song writing is completely useless. I guess I could write a ‘How Not To Write Songs’ post, but I won’t – because I honestly don’t know where I’m going wrong.

With my musical ineptness in mind, the following post is a series of tips  from Mark Brailsford (the director of The Treason Show); I guess they work equally well for NewsRevue.

Here’s what he has to say:

The songs that work best in the show tend to have a set-up verse and a hook chorus structure. The most successful songs in the show parody the ‘hook’.

DEF: Hook as in the lyric that makes the song instantly recognisable, in most cases the title of the song. Some examples:

  • ‘Robert Deniro’s Waiting’ by The Bangles – ‘Robert Mugabe’s Hating’
  • ‘Leader of the Pack’ – ‘Leader Talking Crap’
  • ‘We Will Rock You’ – Four vicars singing: ‘We’ll Unfrock You’

There is no hard and fast way to conjure up the inspiration, but this works for me sometimes:

  1. I look through my collection of well known songs and see if they prod an idea, (usually favourite songs produce the idea).
  2. Look in record shops at the compilation collections.
  3. Trawl the Internet for ’60s-’90s pop charts.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get is: “Why didn’t my song get in to The Treason Show?”

The songs that are most frustrating tend to show promise as an idea and then peter out because of the following:

  1. The hook isn’t a parody.
  2. The song is too obscure (An audience must be likely to know it).
  3. The lyrics have no gags (We scrub so many songs because it’s just stating the obvious with no story).
  4. (AS ABOVE) No progression through the lyrics. 

Think of your song as a sketch set to music. Ideally with a set up, establishment and pay-off/punchline (In a song’s case usually the hook).

Of course there are many exceptions and sometimes a serious song with a great ‘reveal’ at the end is superior.

We had a song about crap shops in Brighton, ‘Buying Shit in the Laines’ to the tune of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ by U2. It had a great ending from an entirely different song: “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. It also had the benefit of an angle: shallow Chav girl from Croydon shopping in Brighton, which added characterisation to enrich the point.

These are just one or two ways of looking at it, it comes down to your own personal way of doing things. Here’s a list of suggestions for now (This isn’t personal taste, it’s what has worked in the show in the past):

  • Top 20 hits in today’s chart (But only ones that have a recognisable melody and hook).
  • Music to Watch Girls By (All 3 collections, over 100 songs).
  • Guitar based solo artists and bands such as Paul Simon, Kinks, Beatles, Stones, Eagles, The Jam, Fleetwood Mac.
  • Queen
  • 30’s and 40’s Jazz classics. (Old Black Magic, Lady is a Tramp, etc)
  • Abba
  • Disco hits (Well known ones)
  • Motown (Perfect structure for the show with good harmonies)
  • Well knows Broadway/West End musical numbers (Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Money (from Cabaret), Oliver, Phantom of the Opera, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls etc)
  • Elvis
  • Tom Jones

Personal tastes vary from Bob Marley to Radiohead and Manic St Preachers to Gershwin and Charles Trenet. (If anyone fancies writing stuff from them, great!) But it’s an open book and there are so many great options that I haven’t mentioned, just listen to what’s around you in shops, cafes etc and see if anything drops into place. Then marry it up to the news and our edit sheets and you may surprise yourself with inspiration.

Hope it helps.

Cheers all,

Mark Brailsford

I’ve just realised, that’s my first guest post.

Sort of.

He didn’t actually write that specifically for me, it was a general email to The Treason Show writers a while back, but I got permission so it still counts.

Inspired? Bursting with song ideas? I am, but they’re all shit. Never mind, persistence is the key.

Incidentally, if a more competent song writer wants to donate a song as an example, please email me and I’ll post it here for all to see.

And laugh at – but hopefully in a good way.

Categories: Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

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One thought on “How to write songs

  1. Pingback: How to write songs (Part 2) « The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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